My first attempts at the pistol squat were an embarrassing failure.
Back then, weight training made up the majority of my leg workouts, and I thought I had already built myself a set of powerful posts. I could leg press nearly half a ton and comfortably barbell squat more than my body weight for many reps. As such, I assumed an unloaded single leg squat would be a cinch. Boy was I wrong!
It didn’t matter that I could move all that weight with both my legs working together; I still wasn’t able to do even one pistol squat.
In fact, my early experiences with the pistol squat sowed the seeds for a major turning point in my training. My initial inability to perform the move made me reevaluate not only my workouts, but my very definition of strength. I was forced to acknowledge that weight training was not providing the type of strength that I desired.
That was almost 15 years ago, and since then I’ve spent a lot of time practicing pistol squats. I’m constantly working to refine and improve my technique, and I’ve learned a great deal throughout the process.
The pistol squat has a myriad of benefits, and it’s become one of my favorite exercises. Here are five reasons you should consider adding them to your training:
You get a lot of bang for your buck with pistol squats! This unique calisthenics leg exercise allows you to build tremendous strength in your lower body, as well as your abs and lower back, without requiring any equipment at all. Practicing pistols will also improve your flexibility, balance and overall body control.
Due to the intensity of each rep, you don’t need to do a lot of them to feel the effects. For this reason, pistols are the perfect exercise for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of time to devote to their fitness regimen. Furthermore, few exercises can provide similar benefits without the need for anything more than a small amount of floor space.
2. Double Your Output
The classic two-legged bodyweight squat is one of the most important movement patterns to learn. However, after you can do hundreds of bodyweight squats in one workout, you are probably better off increasing the intensity of the exercise rather than continuing to pile on the reps. The most obvious benefit of practicing pistol squats is that you exponentially increase the load on each of your legs by training them one at a time.
Furthermore, by working each leg independently of one another, you also increase the total amount of energy expenditure in your training session, leading to an increased metabolic effect.
3. Identify and Eradicate Imbalances
Any squat variant that’s performed on two legs will allow your dominant side to compensate for your less strong side, even if only slightly. Nobody has perfect symmetry between both sides of the body, but it is helpful to strive for balance in your training. Practicing pistol squats and other single leg variants will make it obvious if you have a substantial disparity between your two sides.
Once you have identified your weak leg, you can begin prioritizing it in your workouts. This means training that leg first within each session, which will allow you to give it your full energy and attention. Additionally, you can spread the same number of reps out over more sets on that side. For example, if you can do 3 sets of 5 reps on your stronger leg, you can try doing 5 sets of 3 reps on your less strong side in order to allow for more recovery without doing less total work.
4. Learn To Use Your Muscles Synergistically
Newcomers to the pistol squat are often surprised by how difficult it is to perform even one proper rep. Though the strength, flexibility and balance components of the exercise are all key, the amount of coordination required for this movement pattern is just as often a limiting factor. I have personally trained lots of strong, flexible people with good balance who still needed practice and coaching in order to nail their first pistol squat. This is due to the high level of synergism between various muscle groups that performing a pistol demands. It’s misleading to think of the pistol squat simply as a “one legged” exercise – you’ll need harmony between all the muscles of your lower body as well as your core in order to execute a proper pistol. Even the leg that remains in the air has to work hard to stay straight and avoid touching the floor.
5. Strengthen Your Mind/Muscle Connection
Like many advanced calisthenics exercises, firing off a pistol squat requires tremendous focus. When you’re doing a pistol, it’s almost impossible to think about anything else. In fact, if you do get distracted by a passing thought for very long, there’s a good chance you will lose your balance and fail to complete the rep. As such, the neurological connectivity between your mind and your muscles will grow stronger the more you practice your pistol, and your sense of body awareness will improve as you continue to refine the movement pattern.
Though most people won’t be able to just jump right in with the pistol squat, there are several steps you can use to work your way up to the full Monty. Take your time with these progressions and milk each step for all you can. Keep in mind that a beginner should not expect to achieve a full pistol squat without months (or possibly years) of dedicated training.
That said, here are three of my favorite progressions:
Bench Assisted Pistol
Once you’re comfortable with two legged squats, this can be your next step toward a pistol squat. Stand with your back facing a bench or other object that’s around knee-height, then lift one leg in the air, reach your arms in front of your body and carefully sit back onto the bench. Pause briefly at the bottom, then drive your heel into the ground and brace your trunk by contracting your abs as you stand up in order to maintain control. It’s okay if you lose your balance on the way down at first – that’s why you’ve got the bench beneath you! In time, you can gradually progress this exercise by sitting back onto a lower object.
In this modification of the pistol squat, you and your partner provide increased stability for each other as well as a counterbalance, making this difficult move a more manageable task for you both. Face your partner and clasp hands while you both lift one leg in the air and extend it in front of your body. Make sure you both lift the same leg so you don’t kick each other. (If your partner lifts his or her right leg, then you lift your right leg as well.) You may also need to stagger your stance a bit to avoid getting in the way of one another. From this position, both of you will lower down into the deepest single-leg squat you can manage, using your partner to maintain stability and balance, then carefully return to the top.
One of the biggest challenges of the pistol squat is keeping the non-squatting leg in the air. To minimize this issue, many people find holding the toe of that leg to be helpful, particularly in the bottom position. This technique is also useful for those who have a hard time keeping their non-squatting leg straight. Additionally, holding your foot helps to facilitate full body tension. This variant is often referred to as a “Wushu” pistol.
For more information on pistol squat progressions and other calisthenics leg exercises, grab a copy of Street Workout by Al Kavadlo and Danny Kavadlo.
Al Kavadlo is the Lead Instructor for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification and the author of several best-selling books, including Street Workout and Pushing The Limits. Al has been featured in The New York Times, Men’s Health, Bodybuilding.com, T-Nation, TRAIN magazine and many other publications around the world. To find out more, visit www.AlKavadlo.com.